A World of Pain

By Cynthia Lim

7.1 I-small awoke awash in pain. Hot, searing flashes from the incision below my abdomen made me wince as I stared at the ceiling of my hospital room. I had just had a complete hysterectomy due to a mass that my doctor discovered on my left ovary. I shifted my weight and felt sharp cramps in my pelvic area.

I shook myself, trying to rise from the morphine stupor. I had already suffered a string of tragedies in the past three years. First, my husband, Perry, at age forty-seven, suffered a massive heart attack and didn’t get enough oxygen to his brain. He was resuscitated but serious cognitive deficits remained. Previously a loquacious attorney, he now had short-term memory loss and difficulty initiating speech. A full-time caregiver tended to his daily needs while I worked. In the evenings and on weekends, I was responsible for his care.

Then my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, even though she had never smoked. For a year she went through rounds of chemotherapy but eventually succumbed to the cancer. A year later a suspicious mass on my ovary was detected by my family doctor. Ultrasound revealed a small cluster, like grapes, clinging to my left ovary as well as fibroids in my uterus. Surgery was the recommended option, although the doctors didn’t feel it was life-threatening.

At forty-nine I was nearing menopause, and my childbearing years were over. Our sons were entering adulthood at eighteen and twenty-two. But still I didn’t know if I was ready to surrender my uterus and ovaries. I hadn’t considered what the removal of all my female organs would signify. Was it absolutely necessary? But what if it was cancer?

That day I drove away from the medical building trembling, tears in my eyes and a longing for comfort or concern from someone, anyone. I longed for the pre-brain-injury Perry, who would have been with me when the news was delivered, then whispered soothing assurances that I would be okay as he held my hand. I longed for the Perry who would have told me that my essence of womanhood would be intact even if I was missing my uterus and ovaries.

The surgery had been carefully timed around availability of help, both for me in the recuperation stage and for caring for Perry at home. With my doctor we decided on the week after Christmas. Zack, my older son, would be home for winter break from college. Paul, a senior in high school, would be on vacation. My aunt Georgina, her husband, and two teenage boys would come while I was in the hospital. My sister Donna and her husband, Philip, were scheduled to come after I was discharged home.

***

The mass turned out to be borderline malignant, mostly benign. I drifted in and out of consciousness after the surgery but remember Georgina’s smiling face at the foot of my bed while they wheeled me out of the recovery room.

“You’re fine, Cyn! Everything went well! They got it all!”

But why was I in so much pain? Did they not give me enough anesthesia?

“Ow…ouch…help…me…help me.”

Was I dreaming or talking in my sleep? I opened my eyes. It wasn’t my voice. It was coming from next door. It wasn’t a youthful voice but not an elderly one either. It sounded like a woman in her thirties perhaps, maybe forties, a weak, gravelly voice.

“Help me…Annie!….Ann…nie! Annie…help me!”

Did the woman next door have a hysterectomy, and was she feeling the same pain as me? Why wasn’t anyone responding to her?

“Help me, help me, help me!”

A nurse entered the room next door and spoke in soothing tones. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Try to lift your arm.”

“No!…No! It hurts! It hurts!” the woman screamed. “MOTHER! MOTHER!”

Mother? Maybe she was younger than I thought. Who was this woman crying for her mother, and what was the matter with her?

I felt a pang of loss, thinking about my mother. I missed the way she stood over me when I was a child, feeling my forehead for signs of fever, concern on her face. I missed having the old Perry next to me, stroking my hand and telling me I was fine. I thought about Perry now, at home. Was he okay? Georgina and her family were there with him, as well as the full-time caregiver. Even in my incapacitated state, there was no escaping my caregiver role, wondering if his needs were met and how he was doing.

I fell asleep again, lost in a morphine fog.

The next time I woke, it was the middle of the night. My pain had subsided and the room was dark. I could hear the moaning sounds of the woman next door through the open door. I wanted to shut the door so I could fall back asleep but was immobilized, still hooked to an IV.

“Help me, help me, help me.”

While I wallowed in my own pain, I felt resentful. Can you give it a rest? I was in pain too. I wasn’t crying out. How cowardly, I thought.

In the morning the nurse was checking on my bandages when her cell phone rang. She lowered her voice, but I heard, “I’m in Room 302, next to the one with the metastases in her breast…yes, she’s a difficult one.”

The nurse glanced at me, then stepped outside the room, realizing she had compromised the woman’s privacy. I felt a stirring of sympathy. A mass in her breast had metastasized. She was experiencing an entirely different kind of pain. Mine was subsiding and would eventually go away. But hers would most likely get worse.

The nursing assistant came in later and got me to stand on my feet. My abdomen and legs were on fire, but I was forced to walk to the lavatory and back. After I was left alone, I gave myself more doses of morphine and practiced getting up and tottering around the room. By the second day I was getting up on my own, not needing the help of nursing assistants.

The woman in the room next door didn’t fare as well. In the evening the nurses tried to turn her over.

“My leg! My leg!” she screamed, her voice echoing up and down the hallway. “Mother! Mother! MOTHER!”

They must have managed to get her in position because her cries subsided. Then there were voices outside my door. It must be her mother and father and a doctor, I surmised. The doctor’s voice was deep and clear.

“The only options right now are surgery or hospice…if hospice, maybe two months. I don’t know what you want to do. I don’t know if she is strong enough for surgery right now. I don’t know if surgery would even help. The cancer has spread.”

I felt remorseful for resenting her moaning earlier. She was staring death in the face, with dismal options. I didn’t want to hear or know anymore. I remembered the phalanx of doctors laying out options for me after Perry’s heart attack while he was in a coma: vegetative state, life support, do not resuscitate orders. I remembered the grief and shock of those hours in the intensive care unit, not knowing if Perry would ever awaken or what his state of mind would be if he survived. I didn’t want to hear another family’s heartrending decisions. I turned up the TV to drown out the voices in the hallway.

That evening Perry, Zack, and Paul came to visit along with Georgina and Dave and their two sons. For three hours I forgot about the woman next door and her moaning. Perry’s face brightened at the sight of me, the way it always did when he saw me. He stood next to my bed and stroked my hand, but I don’t think he registered why I was there. We got him to sit on the couch near the window while I ate the fried chicken they brought and the white chocolate cake from our favorite bakery. The chatter of happy voices in my room drowned out the conversations next door.

But later that night I was awakened again.

“Mo…ther! Mo…ther! Mother!”

Another sleepless night ensued. She screamed for Annie again, cried when they tried to move her. I pictured her wrapped in bandages, her legs in traction perhaps. Why was it so difficult and painful to move her leg?

The next day I expanded my walking to outside of my room. I put on the padded socks the hospital provided and shuffled up and down the hallway, hunched over in my hospital gown. I peered into the room next door as I passed. The curtain was drawn but I caught a glimpse of her parents, a middle-aged couple in their late fifties. As I circled the ward, I got a better view of her parents on my return. The father was trim and athletic with graying hair, dressed in khaki pants and a polo shirt. The mother was plump with rounded cheeks and wearing a red sweatshirt and comfortable walking shoes. They looked solemn and serious, huddled in conversation with a doctor in a white coat outside the curtain.

My strength was returning. I was able to get up and close my door in the evenings to shut out the constant moaning and the hushed conversations in my doorway. Even though I was facing a recuperation period of six weeks, I looked forward to going home. My health would only get better. Perry would continue to recover also, albeit at a slow, glacial pace. So far we had evaded the prospect of death.

On discharge day I sat on the couch next to my bed, fully dressed, and waited for the nurse to take out the IV, to release me from this world. I tapped my foot in impatience. The nurse was standing outside the door, engaged in conversation with the woman’s father.

“We don’t know what to do…none of the options…” he said, his voice breaking, then dissolving into a sob.

“Whatever you decide to do, we will back you. It’s your decision and they are all tough decisions,” said the nurse. “Whatever you decide, we will be here for you.”

I wanted to cover my ears to block out the heartbreak. Georgina walked in the door, and I was glad to have someone to converse with so I wouldn’t have to overhear their gut-wrenching decisions. At last the nurse brought my discharge papers, a wheelchair was found, and I was taken to the car. I winced each time we hit a speed bump which punctuated the pain, but I felt a sense of elation of being free from the hospital. As I stared out the windows, I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman in the room next door whose face I never glimpsed. Her plaintive cries of pain were etched in my mind. I was going home to heal and recover, but for her the real pain was yet to come.

 

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Cynthia Lim lives in Los Angeles, California with her husband and is working on a memoir about her husband’s brain injury. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Legendary, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Rougarou: an Online Literary Journal, and Kaleidoscope: Exploring the Experience of Disability through Literature and the Fine Arts. In addition to caregiving, she works for the Los Angeles Unified School District.


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